Growing in Discernment

In spite of the dangers, Tim Challies has made it clear in the earlier chapters of The Discipline of Spiritual Discernment that discernment is directly related to spiritual growth and maturity and, therefore, it is a discipline that every Christian must pursue. In order to actually develop discernment, we must follow a biblical pattern which is laid out by Solomon for his own son:

My son, if you receive my words, and treasure my commands within you, so that you incline your ear to wisdom and apply your heart to understanding; yes, if you cry out for discernment, and lift up your voice for understanding, if you seek her as silver and search for her as for hidden treasures; then you will understand the fear of the LORD and find the knowledge of God. (Proverbs 2:1-5)

As Challies summarizes them, the necessary commitments for discernment are that we be actively involved in the pursuit of discernment, that we passionately desire discernment, that we pray for discernment, and that we seek discernment. He explains that “we cannot expect that wisdom and discernment will be immediately bestowed upon us in full measure,” and that “a person who wishes to be discerning will necessarily and always be a person who commits to reading and studying the Bible on a regular basis.”

In other words, if we would have discernment, we must be willing to work to get it. Not that we can get wisdom apart from God’s grace, for Solomon goes on to say in v.6 that “the LORD gives wisdom; from his mouth come knowledge and understanding.” But discernment does not just happen, nor does God impart wisdom to those who are lazy or uncommitted but only to those who are determined to receive it from him. In addition to these basic commitments, discernment demands the appropriate context, character, and confirmation.

The context for discernment is the local church. God has wisely ordained that believers are not to isolate themselves or to consume his grace for their own benefit but primarily for the benefit of the body of Christ. Challies explains that “the local church is the Christian’s most natural context in which to learn, to model, and to practice spiritual discernment.” When we join ourselves to a local church body, we have the opportunity to learn to tolerate differences between ourselves and other believers, to serve others, and to give up our rights freely in order to maintain peace between brothers and sisters in Christ. Cut loose from the authority and responsibilities of the local church, we may easily fall prey to the dangers of discernment that were mentioned in the last chapter. In short, “a person who wants to grow in discernment must belong to a local church and must place himself under the authority of godly leaders.”

The character for discernment is humility expressed in meekness and compassion. First of all, we must be humble before God, admitting our sin and need for his grace, that his word is true and sufficient to teach us wisdom. When we cry out to God for wisdom and discernment, we humble ourselves and acknowledge our great need, and he will meet our prayer with his abundant provision, granting wisdom as he causes us to grow and mature in our faith. But we must also exercise humility before men. Again, this means that we cannot isolate ourselves from other believers, because we need them to help us grow in knowledge and grace. This humility will express itself in a willingness to learn from others, to surround oneself with wise men and women, and to encourage them to offer correction and insight. Most of all, spiritual discernment will always be characterized by a desire to build up rather than tear down and a heart of compassion for those who have been captured by error. Even the most discerning Christian is capable of being deceived, and we would do well to remember that it is only by God’s grace that we are able to stand at all.

Finally, the confirmation of discernment is found in obedience to God’s word. If discernment is properly defined as “the skill of understanding and applying God’s word with the purpose of separating truth from error and right from wrong,” then it follows that the evidence that a person has discernment is that he will know what is true and he will do what is right. It is also clear that a person who does not do what the Bible commands cannot be said to have spiritual discernment or to be spiritually mature. In pursuing discernment, then, we must pursue after God as he is revealed in his word. Challies explains that “we become discerning Christians not by focusing on discernment as an end in itself, but by focusing on the person of God and the character of God.” Just as a tree does not grow by trying to grow but by stretching toward the sun, its source of life and power, we cannot grow as Christians by focusing on becoming mature or discerning but by always reaching toward the Lord who saved us and into whose likeness we are being transformed. Pursue Christ and you will find wisdom and discernment.

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